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A healthier McDonald's - from fries to apple slices

Tuesday - 9/18/2012, 10:58am  ET

Last week was certainly not the best week for the soda giants The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo . The government’s food police were out in full force, with New York City’s Board of Health approving a ban on the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, concession stands and street carts. The worry among these companies is that New York City’s controversial ban will spread to the rest of the country, affecting the profitability these companies' most popular drinks.

Although Coke and Pepsi have been busy trying to think of new ways to maintain their unhealthy businesses in the face of this and other possible government regulations, American consumers had already been reconsidering their beverage options. Long before this New York City soda ban was even proposed, the sale of soda in the United States was already in a steady 8-year decline. Soda drinkers were beginning to change their drinking habits, slowing transition to healthier beverage alternatives. While these two soda giants were trying to hold on to their old business model of selling sugar water, fighting off the food police at every corner, another company wised-up and began to change its ways nearly a decade ago. Instead of being at the mercy of the food police, McDonald’s has been busy policing itself (and doing so to great effect).

Credit Where Credit is Due

Although some of its most impassioned critics are not likely to give the company much credit, McDonald’s has become a much healthier company; both in terms of its menu and its corporate culture. Menu changes and a company-wide emphasis on healthy eating have turned McDonald’s 33,500 worldwide locations into a restaurant option for health conscious consumers.

An Apple a Day…

The catalyst for these changes is often attributed to “Super Size Me”, the 2004 scathing documentary about McDonald’s and the fast food industry in general. The most notable change as a likely result of the documentary was the removal of the option to ‘Supersize’ fries and drink items. This removal in 2004 was to address concerns about the portion sizes of much of McDonald’s menu.

Around this time, children’s Happy Meals also began to see a makeover. Apple slices became an option for parents, as did healthier drink options including 100% apple juice, 1% low-fat milk and bottled water. Despite the option of apple slices, only about 11% of parents actually took advantage of the possible inclusion of fruit in their children’s meals. So in 2011, McDonald’s made apple slices the default item for all Happy Meals, as well as replacing the small fries with a ‘kids size’ fries half the portion size. Today McDonald’s is the single largest purchaser of apples in the United States.

In addition to specific item changes, the overall menu has become markedly healthier. Early last year, McDonald’s announced it reduced the salt content across its menu by 11.3%. And today over 80% of McDonald's menu items are under 400 calories.

And Knowing is Half of the Battle

Part of the changes of McDonald’s corporate culture involves providing customers with the ability to make more informed decisions. McDonald’s tray-liners come with nutritional information printed directly on them. McDonald’s website and smartphone apps include nutritional values, complete with a list of ingredients for each individual item; from 100% all beef patties to the mustard (distilled vinegar, water, mustard seed, turmeric, paprika, spice extractive). A customizable nutritional calculator allows customers to know the precise nutritional value of their meals. Don’t like tartar sauce or cheese on your Filet-O-Fish sandwich? A few quick taps on your iPhone screen will remove those condiments and recalculate the nutritional content based on your choices.

The Future - It Comes Soon Enough

McDonald’s is not stopping there, however. Announced just last week, McDonald’s is currently replacing its in-restaurant and drive-thru menu boards. The new menu boards will have calorie information printed right next to each item. Continued menu changes are forthcoming also. McDonald’s is currently testing a new McWrap with fresh vegetables such as cucumbers. An Egg McMuffin with 100% egg whites will be another new menu addition. Both of these items are expected nationwide later next year. Additional salt reductions are in the cards as well, with a planned 15% reduction by 2015. We can also expect an increased emphasis on healthy eating and active lifestyle messages toward children. By the end of 2012, 100% of McDonald’s children’s merchandise, advertisements and Happy Meal packaging will feature messages promoting those values.

That'll Do

McDonald’s has come quite a long way in just a few short years. The company that previously asked if you wanted to Supersize your Coke and fries now asks if you want low-fat milk with your apple slices and premium salads. McDonald’s new emphasis on healthy eating will result in healthier customers, as well as a much healthier long-term investment for shareholders.

This article was originally published as A Healthier McDonald’s - From Supersized Fries to Apple Sliceson Fool.com

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